A Trip Report
Page 1

By Kenneth Lin

JR West's Shinkansen series 500
JR West's Shinkansen Series 500 in service between Tokyo and Hakata/Kyushu running at a maximum speed of 300 km/h.
Inside cab of Shinkansen series 500
Inside Shinkansen Series 500 cab.
This trip report is intended to offer viewpoints from my dual perspectives as that of a professional transportation planner and as a travel agent as to how U.S. tourists and visitors might use and experience the Japanese railway system. In addition, I offer my comments and suggestions regarding various aspects of the railway system. The purpose of this trip report to provide some helpful feedback and ideas for promoting the use of the Japanese railway network by U.S. travelers to Japan.

My travels to Japan
Altogether, I have visited Japan six times for a total of approximately thirteen weeks. Disregarding the first trip, which was at the age of nine in 1969, subsequent trips have taken place in 1984 (one month), 1989 (two weeks), 1992 (two weeks), 1993 (two weeks) and July 1997 (11 days). Thus, collectively, these trips have provided me with insights as to Japan's railway system before and after the formation of the JR Group of companies.

The Tenth Anniversary of JR Group of companies
Nowhere else, except perhaps in India, is the cultural identity of a country so closely identified with the network of passenger railways as in Japan. Indeed, without Japan's comprehensive network of passenger rail lines would it even be possible for Japan's concentrated urban development and population density to even exist. Railways are every bit as essential to Japan as irrigation canals and aqueducts are to California for its continued growth and development.

1997 marks the Tenth Anniversary of the Japan Railways Group of companies formed by the fragmenting of the former Japanese National Railways (JNR) into, among other entities, several operating companies. Where previously JNR provided passenger rail service throughout four islands-- Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido-- today this task is taken up by JR Kyushu, West Japan Railways, East Japan Railways, JR Shikoku and JR Hokkaido. A chief reason for this break up was to "privatise" and reorganise the massive debt and obligations which had accumulated under years of JNR operation. A second reason, however, was to foster a new, more customer-focused, and entrepreneurial spirit into the newly created group of railways. Of course, this would be initially staffed by ex-JNR employees at the time of privatisation.

So, ten years after privatisation, have the various JR operating railways become more customer-focused? And how has the creation of the JR group of railways affected U.S. travelers using JR trains? Have there been substantiative service improvements, or has much of the change been cosmetic?

What can today's North American customer traveling to Japan expect?
A decade of improvements
Thinking back and comparing my 1997 trip to my 1984 trip, from an overall customer service point of view, I would say that the improvements in the JR group of railways have been dramatic. Even more remarkable is that these dramatic improvements have been achieved against a solid base of service which already existed prior to 1987.

The Japan Railways group of operating companies have built upon its traditional base and strengths including an enviable safety operating record, consistently courteous employees, and a well deserved reputation for fastidious on-time train performance. To varying degrees, the new JR entities have injected imaginative new concepts into their respective railway operations. In 1984, passenger rolling stock, while still interesting, tended to be less imaginative and comfortable than today, with some older railcars bordering on spartan.

Railway stations were more functional then, with less attention paid to aesthetics and passenger amenities. I recall distinctly in 1984, that there was little difference between the comfort of Green Class (first class) and Ordinary (second class) railcar cabins, except for slightly wider seats and increased seat pitch. On-board service in the JNR era, while uniformly excellent, seemed less entrepreneurial than today.

Today, the JR fleet has been infused with a number of new and incredibly imaginative railcars and trainsets. Some of the most imaginative trains which I have seen during my travels to 116 countries operate over Japanese rails. Many train stations have been revitalised, brightened and present a more pleasing appearance to welcome travelers. Some of the refurbished and newly constructed stations are architecturally noteworthy, and JR era stations feature more customer amenities than before.

The past decade has seen a raising of the comfort standards for both Ordinary and Green Class on the newest railcars via the introduction of more comfortable seats, improved interior ergonomics, and higher quality interior fittings. Today there is a distinct difference between the two classes. Green Class passengers enjoy greater seat pitch, greater variety of interior configurations (including private compartments), more comfortable seat designs and styling, improved interior cabin ambience, and on some trains, complimentary at-seat beverage service from hostesses. Certain trains such as the Tsubame, Tsubasa, Super View Odoriko, etc. offer additional amenities in Green Class such as at-seat music, while other trains such as the Super Raicho, West JR Series 100 Shinkansen, and Super Hitachi offer individual TV screens for Green Class customers. These amenities were unknown in the JNR days.

My impression is that the sum of these improvements have raised the quality and value of the railway product relative to the ticket price paid. Discounting fluctuations in the Dollar to Yen exchange rates (which are beyond the control of JR), for US travelers, this translates into improved service and better value for money. From a travel agent's point of view, this makes the Japanese trains an easier service to sell.

Affordable Japan
In my conversations with clients (as a travel agent) and in casual conversations with friends, acquaintances and colleagues, there emerges one reoccurring perception about travel in Japan-- that it is viewed by almost everyone as being very expensive! Mention Japan and visions of $5.00 cups of coffee, $60.00 melons, $300.00 per night hotel rooms and the like, instantly spring to mind.

The August 25, 1997 issue of Travel Weekly Magazine (a travel agent industry publication) even reported on this matter with an article (enclosed) entitled "An Affordable Vacation in Japan? It can be done... Really!"

The perception that Japan is expensive is even reinforced by those who have travelled to Japan on business. This is understandable since such an expense-account paid trip offers a distorted (and inflated) view of affordable travel in Japan. The typical U.S. business traveler gamely paying expense account prices at four and five star hotel rates, and eating at restaurants designed for the expense account customer, would naturally just assume that tourist travel must be similarly expensive.

When I have attempted to explain to even worldly travelers that travel in Japan need not be expensive if they followed a few simple guidelines, and that Japanese prices can be comparable to New York City prices, the reaction is one of disbelief. Essentially, there are four main categories of expenses when travelling as a tourist. They are:

An important strategy for touring in Japan comfortably and affordably is to purchase a Japan Rail Pass. Priced at 37,800 yen, a 7 day Green Class Japan Rail Pass is priced at the equivalent of only one roundtrip on the Hikari Shinkansen service in Green Class between Tokyo and Osaka (36,780 yen). Thus, for the price of that single roundtrip, a tourist could enjoy the many splendid JR trains and the cities they serve throughout four islands-- and take seven days to do so. Essentially, a Japan Rail Pass opens a door to affordable travel, and lays down a steel magic carpet at their feet, with virtual flexibility to go as they please! This is solid value.

Comparable bargains are available for travelers purchasing Ordinary Class Japan Rail Passes (28,300 yen) versus Ordinary Class roundtrip Tokyo to Osaka Shinkansen tickets (27,500 yen).

Thus, with intercity travel expenses predetermined and already budgeted, travelers to Japan can then focus on making the remaining categories of trip expenses-- food, lodging, entertainment-- affordable. Here again, the Japan Rail Pass can help.

Simply using the pass exposes the travelers to the world of trains, their train stations and the Japanese way of life. Just as in India, railways in Japan are a microcosm reflective of the greater society they serve. Within this world of trains and stations, tasty and affordable food, varied shopping, entertainment (i.e. bars, lounges) and a range of lodging can be found.

For tourists unfamiliar with the Japanese language and signs, at all but the smallest railway halts, bi-lingual signs (in English) are posted consistently and thoughtfully. I venture to say that English directional signposting is more consistent in JR stations and Japanese subway stations than throughout New York City's subway stations where English is the primary language.

As for finding affordable and tasty food, merely window shopping at train station restaurants will reveal a world of western and Japanese food catering to all budgets. Unlike US restaurants, many Japanese restaurants feature elaborate window displays of plastic replicas of the meals served, with prices helpfully added. Daily set meals are often available, and they offer extra value. If you can't make yourself understood to your server, you can always point to what you want to eat. For those who are rushed, or for the budget traveler, bowls of steaming noodles are ubiquitous at Japanese train stations for 300-500 yen (~$2.70-$4.50).

JR Railways has expanded this world of choice by actively developing new retail and dining opportunities within the larger train stations.

To be certain, train stations in major Japanese cities were often centers of activity during JNR days and contained a variety of shops and restaurants. However, infused by the new JR entrepreneurial spirit, the traditional role of the train station in Japanese cities has been further reinforced and anchored by additional complimentary urban development. Surplus railway real estate, such as unused freight rail yards and sheds, have been productively redeveloped into new hotels, department stores, shopping malls and/or office complexes. Typically these developments are directly connected to stations, much as how Grand Central Terminal in New York is the locus of commercial development.

Strategies for using the Japan Rail Pass
Given the inherent flexibility of the Japan Rail Pass which allows customers to come and go as they please, the rail pass can help keep travel costs down by supporting the following money saving travel strategies:

Marketing the Japan Rail Pass
Compared to the cost and the effort required to purchase individual train tickets, Japan Rail Passes offer many advantages. When marketing the JR pass within North America, it could be worth reminding potential customers about their benefits, including:

Suggestions for improving the Japan Rail Pass
While I have used a Japan Rail Pass on each trip to Japan (except my first trip at age nine), I would like to offer the following suggestions on how to refine an already good product.

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Kenneth Lin is the vice president of the National Railway Historical Soceity (NRHS) New York Chapter.
This article and all the photos contained copyright Kenneth Lin.
If you have any comments, please e-mail to iyayospamKenneth.Lin@Alum.MIT.Edu remove the protective prefix 'iyayospam' before composing.

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